WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon recently sat down with Ad Age to talk about how WWE has transitioned during the COVID-19 pandemic. McMahon talked about how much WWE has missed the fans during this time.
"For WWE, we definitely miss our fans," McMahon said. "For any live event, our fans are apart of our show. They've always been our secret sauce, and we miss them dearly, but that doesn't mean they're not there [or] they're not watching. They're just not live giving us that real-time feedback.
"We've always leveraged our social media channels to listen to our fans as well, but certainly now that's heightened from a data and analytics perspective."
She talked about the things everyone in WWE has learned during this time like how to shoot shows without an audience and how to fill in dead air. She also mentions that the WWE Performance Center has two ceiling fans that do not look appealing on camera, so they have used AR to make it look like ceiling.
"We've also had a few key learnings in terms of camera angles. How not to shoot the audience," McMahon explained. "Our commentators, we used to encourage them to lay out more so you can get more of the natural sound. Now we're encouraging them to fill that gap.
"We've experimented with various forms of augmented reality. Typically, in our Performance Center, there are these big actual fans. It doesn't necessarily look good on TV, so we put in a virtual ceiling which is pretty cool. You can experiment with that and try different things."
McMahon also talked about experimenting with audio. She says that they have been turning the volume up on the audience of developmental NXT talent and how much they have learned to continue those experiments or cut them off.
"We've tried sweetening the audio," McMahon noted. "We do have our developmental superstars act as fans socially distanced with masks to provide some audio and atmosphere, and we've experimented with sweetening that audio turning it up so you can actually hear the cheers, the boos etc.
"We've learned a lot. Sometimes we've overdone it. Again, we've tracked the feedback from our fans who said, 'yeah, that was too much. It wasn't believable, or I really loved that. I really felt more engaged.' We're constantly evaluating and shifting in accordance with what our fans are saying and also what technology is available."
McMahon said that this time is an opportunity to experiment more. She says it allows WWE to innovate and listen to more feedback from fans.
"I think it's opportunity," McMahon stated. "I think in this current environment everyone's in the same boat. So I think our audiences are willing to allow us to experiment a little bit as sports leagues, as brands [and] as entertainment. I think it gives them, actually, to have a voice and to be part of the process, to empower them to give them the feedback that we need on what's working and what's working. On what they like and don't like.
"It really is opportunity across the board. It's forcing innovation, and innovation is critical in today's world. It always has been especially now during COVID."
One such innovation fans have seen is cinematic matches. The most iconic cinematic match has been the Boneyard Match. McMahon revealed that Metallica was set to perform live at WrestleMania during The Undertaker's entrance, but plans changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they still wanted to work with The Undertaker and WWE, so their music was used during The Boneyard Match and The Last Ride.
"From a content perspective, it's actually changed the way we present some of our content. We've experimented with what we call cinematic matches," McMahon explained. "Undertaker and AJ Styles at WrestleMania this year, they competed in a Boneyard Match which was more akin to The Undertaker's branding. It was like a 20-minute movie sequence, and it was cut to Metallica because Metallica was going to be a part of WrestleMania. Their music was going to be a part of Undertaker's entrance.
"When everything changed, they said, 'hey look, we still want to be a part of this if we can. We're not just backing out.' We're very thankful to Metallica for helping score that whole sequence. It was so awesome and so well received. So we tried to emulate those matches to provide something different."
McMahon talked more about the content WWE has produced including Big Show's Netflix show and a movie that featured cameos from different WWE Stars. She also talked about viewership on the WWE Network and YouTube being up.
"We've also really ramped up our content creation," McMahon added. "We have documentaries like The Last Ride or R-Truth has a game show. We've seen our Network consumption increase 67%. On YouTube, for example, we've seen an increase of 70% viewership as we have pivoted and have pushed out more content. The Big Show Show on Netflix and The Main Event, the movie that we did with Kofi Kingston, both of those shows were part of the top 10 most-viewed programming on Netflix the week that they debuted.
"That's been very successful for us as well, but we're traditional a live-events based company with 500 live events throughout the year because we believe in bringing the show to our fans wherever they are all over the world. We're actually the 4th-most viewed YouTube channel in the world. What we've really done is pivot. We've pivoted from that live event experience to creating and producing content across all platforms."
McMahon hinted at live crowds coming back to WWE sooner rather than later. She then transitioned into talking about working with advertisers and accommodating them and their fans.
"I think that happens sooner than later," McMahon noted. "So I'll just throw that out there to the universe. Also, I think there's a number of different features. I think viewership patterns have certainly shifted more digital viewing. I don't really think that's going to change all that much. I think advertising is going to be seen differently. People are being accustomed to watching experiences, some ad-free experiences, some different types of advertising.
"So I think there will be new ways to engage with advertisers to really co-create experiences so it's not intrusive to the fan experience but enhances the fan experience which ultimately is what advertisers want because they want to be associated in a very positive way. I think a lot of the augmented reality and virtual reality is going to stay. I think there's some cool techniques that we've all been experimenting with, certainly WWE has on the air, and we've learned a lot from."
McMahon talked about authenticity and the desire for fans to see more of. She talked about how people want to see more from people behind the scenes at WWE or know more about WWE Superstars.
"I think seeing people for who they are and not so polished in highly-produced environments, we've learned there's a desire to get to know people behind the scenes," McMahon said. "They want to know who the real people are who are either making the decision, the athletes that are competing or the WWE Superstars in the ring. I think there really is a desire to break down those barriers and get to know people on a personal level. It's that authenticity piece sort of amped up."
If you use any quotes from this article, please credit Ad Age with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.